Acquisition Matters

Overcoming fear of the inspector general

Shutterstock image (by adirekjob): magnifying glass resting over a missing puzzle piece.

In 2013, inspectors general from 78 government offices processed a stunning 619,460 complaints that came in through their hotlines.

That’s 1,697 per day.

In the same year, IGs claimed 19,000 indictments or criminal investigations, "successful" prosecutions, and suspensions or debarments, according to the annual report by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).

Interestingly, in 1995, there were considerably fewer take-downs. CIGIE's report for that year indicates there were 8,273 "successful" prosecutions, debarments, exclusions and suspensions of people or firms doing business with the federal government.

So have government and industry become more derelict -- or have the IG offices become more fervent in their pursuits?

IGs are charged with the critical function of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse at their respective agencies. Their role was created in 1978 as an important safeguard in an unwieldy system in which taxpayer dollars might be subject to misuse.

In recent years, however, it seems IGs have traded their magnifying glasses for microscopes and are prosecuting cases that in years past would have been handled administratively (for those at the highest level) or in the woodshed (for those at the lowest level).

In its 2013 report to the president, CIGIE claimed that IGs' prosecutions "strengthened programs" and "resulted in significant improvements to the economy."

But my own quiet conversations with industry leaders, government executives and our hard-working public servants suggest a different and troubling reality: Increased oversight, including the feverish rate of probes by the IG, is creating a fearful paralysis in the entire federal system.

Drawing attention to the problem

The IT community is especially hard-hit by the chill. In a world in which systems and partnerships must necessarily be nimble and collaborative, fear of the IG has virtually frozen communications -- and progress.

Government officials -- especially those in the acquisition function, who are afraid of even the appearance of favoritism or impropriety -- often choose to avoid direct contact with industry, even though such discourse is heralded as an important business practice under the Federal Acquisition Regulation and is actively supported by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and Defense Department leaders.

Those communication barriers between government and industry are hardly new or unacknowledged. Since 2011, OFPP has actively championed a "myth-busting" campaign that is designed to dispel assumptions and fears about government interactions with industry. OFPP's administrator at the time, Dan Gordon, sorted rumor from rule regarding meetings, conversations and exchanges of information between government and industry. Ever since, the drumbeat encouraging improved communications has continued by top leaders across government.

But well-founded fear cannot be overcome by well-meaning efforts. Risk aversion is learned behavior, and therefore, suspicion and paranoia continue to dominate stilted conversations. And now the lack of communication is effectively preventing the development of good solutions, hampering competition and breeding poor decision-making.

And so, despite the demand to overcome risk aversion, foster collaboration, improve efficiency and decrease costs, the fear factor reigns.

Maybe more disturbing, though, is the hush that has fallen over those in government and industry who are unwilling to publicly speak out about their concerns for fear of attracting unwanted attention and consequences.

Off the record, sources in both communities report widespread feelings of powerlessness. As one government procurement official told me, “No one oversees the IGs, so we have no place to turn.”

A former DOD official privately shared that he believes "we have reached the point that what were previously recognized as common, even routine, administrative and business decisions and debates are now being elevated to suspicion or even accusation of criminal wrongdoing and behavior."

The official went on to suggest that "professionalism is being ceded to political and prosecutorial convenience, [which] in turn is resulting in a beaten-down workforce that sticks to rigid transactions rather than strategic thinking."

Thankfully, media discourse is beginning to openly raise questions about the issues with the current IG structure and processes.

For example, in a recent highly publicized case, two IGs were at odds over an employee who once worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs and now works at the Treasury Department. A VA IG report concluded that the procurement official is guilty of misconduct. The Treasury IG said she’s not.

Interestingly, the individual in question had testified against the VA colleague who brought the case to the IG for creating a hostile work environment. Payback?

The Treasury IG, in a letter to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, quotes several witnesses who say the complainant openly sought to retaliate against the executive. And the Washington Post reported that Treasury’s IG is now accusing the VA's IG of misconduct, saying the case "fuels growing concerns about [the VA IG's] work." The Post also reported that the VA's IG is requesting an expedited review of the matter by CIGIE.

Interrupting the cycle

Observers in the federal community are watching the case closely in the hope that it will catch the eye of an authority that will help rebalance the scales in favor of a less punitive approach. But those hopes might be unfounded because, as is often the case, the policy and rhetoric originating from Congress are powerful drivers. And in February, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015, described on Congress.gov as a bill that would “strengthen the independence of the inspectors general.” So it seems that strengthened authorities and oversight might again be the default position.

Becoming the subject of an IG investigation is no small matter. Many report that when IG investigators come to your door, they assume guilt and hang around longer than your in-laws. Even if they find no wrongdoing, work is unnecessarily stalled and managers and workers are unfairly sullied. Parties involved in those investigations say they have been condemned before anything resembling due process has occurred. Even if you emerge with no conviction, you’ve probably been pretty well bloodied and bruised.

The enforcement mentality is not only casting a frost over important relationships, it's costing a fortune. Government contractors spend an estimated 25 cents on the dollar complying with burdensome regulations and responding to a barrage of audits and investigations. And individuals faced with an IG inquiry are spending a personal fortune to gain and maintain representation for investigations that continue without a clear process or endpoint.

In short, we are trapped in a cycle of fear, risk aversion, suppression and, ultimately, mission failure.

It's time to interrupt the cycle.

It's time to shed light on the impact of current oversight policies and conduct a review of practices, processes and governance over our important but intimidating IG community.

It's time for a transparent process by which the severity of a claim, level of investigation and process are determined and communicated. A proper vetting system would prevent lower-level complaints from improperly escalating and would be met with a collective "hurrah!"

Earnestly working to establish a more just and balanced approach would allow the IG community to continue its noble quest of ensuring integrity while beginning to mend the injured federal culture so we can all focus on what is most important: mission delivery, value and service to our country.

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